Oh, and have you seen the OWNING VIOLET trailer yet? Meet Ryder McKay…
I lied when I told Zachary I wasn’t upset about his leaving but I put on a brave face, something I’ve become exceptional at doing. Just when I believe things are going my way, news is delivered that’s like a punch to my stomach. But I’m a survivor, not weak, or at least so I’ve been told again and again. Now it’s all about my game face. That’s what Father calls it.
Like life is one big game. Who thinks like that? Who actually lives like that?
Just as the waiter took away our plates, Zachary told me he would drop me off at my apartment. “Too much to do,” he murmured with that reassuring smile of his pasted on his face. So phony. Why do I believe his lies? Am I that insecure? “My only chance to start packing is at night, after work. I leave in less than two weeks. You understand, don’t you, sweetheart?”
Of course I understand. I’m the perfect girlfriend who stands by her man and lets him do whatever he wants. Including letting him leave her while he attempts to take on a new and glamorous job in another country. He’ll most likely go find a new and glamorous woman, too.
He’s done it before . . . though never out of the country. So that’ll be a new adventure for him. One I’m supposed to ignore and pretend doesn’t exist
The telltale stinging in my eyes lets me know I need to get out of there so I can be alone. Zachary would be embarrassed if I cried. He’d probably tell Father, and I can’t . . . I can’t let him know that I’m upset. I’m fine. I’m composed. I’m happy.
So when the tiny imperfection tries to slip through in the form of tears, I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. Hide away in a stall so no one can see me as I lean against the wall with my face buried in my hands, the tears streaming freely down my cheeks. I only allow myself approximately ninety sec- onds of crying, though. Any more and my cheeks would turn ruddy, my eyes bloodshot. Zachary would know what I was doing.
And I can’t have that.
I keep Visine in my purse for moments like this and after I exit the stall, I go to the row of sinks to wash my hands and assess myself in the mirror. I look . . . like I’ve been crying. My cheeks are a little rosy, my eyes damp and with a tinge of pink. I dry my hands and reach into my purse, grabbing the eye drops so I can take care of the problem. I’m always ready for any situa- tion. My sisters love it. They make fun of all the things I have in my bag, but I like to be prepared.
The drops go in easily and I blink, then grab a tissue and dab at my eyes. My skin is still flushed, so I splash cold water on my face and dry off, then grab my Fleur Cosmetics Perfect Pressed Powder and dab at my cheeks, taking the redness out. A slick of Lickable Lip Gloss in Macadamia Nut on my lips and I finally look presentable, ready to face the world. Face Zachary.
Despite my anger, I know I need to cherish these last few days with him before he leaves, but my stomach hurts when I think about how he and Father kept this from me when I could have known weeks ago. I could have prepared myself. Instead, he blindsided me.
Get over it. Be strong. You can go on without him. This is temporary. It’s not like he broke up with you. All sorts of couples manage through a long-distance relationship.
They do. I can. Zachary loves me in his own special way. He needs me, but he also needs to do this to further his career. Otherwise, he’ll resent me forever.
Taking a deep breath, I slip my Chanel bag over my shoulder and exit the bathroom, stopping short when I see a man standing in the darkened hallway, almost as if he was waiting for me. His face is in shadows but I recognize his build, the way he holds himself. Confident, with that arrogant tilt of his head and those incredibly broad shoulders.
It’s Ryder McKay.
“Well, well, well. Violet Fowler, how are you this evening?” His rumbly deep voice washes over me as he steps out of the shadows, tall and imposing and handsome as sin.
I take a step back, not wanting him in my personal space, but he invades it anyway. “Mr. McKay,” I say politely, not daring to call him by his first name. That would imply I know him, that we’re friends or at the very least friendly coworkers, and we’re neither of those things. He may work at Fleur, but I rarely speak to him. I don’t have to, and besides . . .
There’s something about all that edgy darkness and how it radiates from him. He demands attention without saying a word, and there’s an air of danger that surrounds him, that en- snares me despite my reluctance to be near him. The innate sexuality that he represents . . . it scares me.
He scares me.
“I’ve worked at Fleur long enough for you to call me Ryder, don’t you think?” He pauses for a heavy beat and the air seems to fill with electricity as I wait for him to speak. “You don’t mind that I call you Violet, do you?”
He somehow makes my name sound like a sexual promise. I take another step back and my butt hits the wall. He smiles, and I know he knows I’ve realized I’m trapped. “Of course you can call me Violet,” I say, thankful my voice isn’t shaking. I have no idea what to say to him, how to act. “Did you have a nice dinner?”
He grins. “Why yes, I did, thank you for asking. The view was spectacular.” His gaze slides down the length of me, taking me all in. My breasts, my stomach, my hips, my legs, lingering on my feet before moving back up, his gaze once more on mine. “The food was good, too.”
My cheeks heat, but it’s not from the leftover tears. It’s the way he looks at me, his gaze so bold, like he wants to devour me. His mention of the view is in reference to me. As if he’s somehow attracted to me.
I don’t believe it. He’s just trying to unnerve me with his not-so-subtle flirting. And it’s working.
“How’s Zachary?” Ryder asks when I still haven’t answered.
I jolt, giving myself a little shake. Zachary. I need to remember that my boyfriend is outside waiting for the car. Waiting for me. “Fine,” I say as I step away from the wall. But that only brings me closer to Ryder and he doesn’t budge. I can smell him. His scent is as dark and alluring as he is. “I should go. He’s waiting—”
“I hear he’s leaving for London.” The expression on Ryder’s handsome face is all polite sympathy, but with a hint of mockery in his dark blue eyes. He doesn’t like Zachary and the feeling is mutual. Zachary complains about him all the time. I’m sure Ryder’s thrilled that Zachary is leaving. “Trying out for a promotion, correct? I’m sure you’re proud of him.”
Proud of him? I should be. And seriously, did everyone know this bit of news but me? “H-how did you hear?” I press my lips together, angry that I let the little stutter slip. I need to remain composed, especially in the face of this particular man.
He’s a shark. I know he takes advantage of the weak and gobbles them up. I’ve heard the stories. And those stories are more than half the reason Father is so pleased that he works at Fleur. Father admires a shark. It’s why he loves Zachary so much, too, though Zachary is much smoother in his . . . predatory approach to business.
“My dinner partner told me the good news.” He inclines his head when he notes my confusion. “I’m here with Pilar.”
“Oh.” Pilar. How could I forget? His relationship, his usual aloofness—it’s all such a mystery. Hardly anyone knows much about him, but they all want to learn more. At the moment, though, he’s being downright friendly with me.
“Yes.” He smiles, and it’s so dazzling I feel like I’m momentarily blinded. “Oh.”
“How is Pilar?” I ask, being polite when I realize he seems to be waiting for a response. He still hasn’t moved out of my way and I inhale discreetly, taking in his sharp, masculine scent. I let my gaze linger on him for a long moment as he looks down at the floor, as if he’s savoring a personal joke. His eyelashes are long and thick, casting shadows upon his cheekbones, and my belly flutters when he glances up, his intense gaze meeting mine.
“She’s well. Up to her usual tricks.” The smile that curls the corners of his lips tells me he is in on the joke and I am definitely not. “I should probably go check on her.”
“Where is she?”
“She’s waiting at the front for her car. We rode together.” His smile grows. “I wanted to come back here and check on you.”
I frown. “Check on me?”
He shrugs those impossibly broad shoulders encased in fine Italian charcoal wool. “You seemed upset.”
Really? Does that mean Zachary noticed too? He never said anything to me. I practically broke down in front of him at our table and he never uttered a word of concern.
“From the way you leapt up from the table, I had a feeling that Zachary just delivered the news.” Ryder takes another step forward, reaching out to settle his big hand on my upper arm, giving it a brief, somewhat innocent squeeze.
My reaction to his touch is anything but innocent. That squeeze swims through my blood, settling like a pulse between my legs.
“We’re fine. Really.” I step out of his touch, then move to the side so I can get past him. I hurry down the hall, as far away from Ryder as I can get, when he speaks.
“And you? Are you fine, Violet?”
I pause and close my eyes, fighting the tears that threaten yet again. What’s wrong with me? Why do I want to cry at something stupid Ryder McKay just said? It makes no sense. My reaction to this man makes absolutely zero sense.
“I’m perfect.” I turn to find him watching me, his hands slipped into his trouser pockets, his legs spread in a typical masculine stance.
“Yes,” he says, his gaze roaming over me yet again. I’m tempted to fidget but keep myself still. “You are.” He looks like a warrior ready to stand down against the enemy, tall and powerful with an arrogant curl to his upper lip, his eyes glittering in the dim light.
“Thank you for your concern,” I add, frowning at my ridiculous graciousness. I need to walk away. His presence completely throws me.
“Anytime. Always so polite, aren’t you,” he murmurs, his voice drifting toward me, soft and sexy. “I hate to see such a beautiful woman so upset.”
My knees wobble at his casual compliment. When was the last time Zachary said something like that to me? Called me beautiful? Such a simple word, but it carries so much power. “You flatter me,” I murmur in return.
“I speak the truth.” He steps forward, drawing close once more. “May I escort you outside?”
Ryder offers his arm and I have no choice but to accept. As he said, I am always, above anything else, polite. So I slip my arm through his, around his elbow, and he leads me through the restaurant toward the entrance. I try to ignore the hummingbirds fluttering their wings within my belly. Try to ignore the heat that radiates off him, inviting me to snuggle closer.
I smile, barely able to hold back the laugh that wants to escape. Snuggle is not a word I would use when talking about Ryder. I’m sure no woman has ever wanted to merely snuggle with him. He’s far too intimidating.
“You’re laughing,” he says, his lips at my ear as he bends his head toward mine. A shiver moves through me when I feel his warm breath caress my skin. “Do you find me that amusing?”
The man notices everything. It’s rather unnerving. “I wasn’t laughing,” I counter. “Just smiling at someone I know.”
“Mmm-hmm.” That low hum rumbles from his chest, the sound knowing. As if he’s confident he’s caught me in a lie.
Which he has.
Ryder opens the door for me and I step out into the bitter-cold air. Zachary is standing on the curb in front of our car, Pilar standing in front of him, her hand on his chest as they both laugh.
My blood runs cold and I stop in my tracks, watching them. Ryder stops as well, never letting me go and not saying a word either. I curl my fingers around his rock-hard bicep, momentarily distracted as I tilt my head to look at his arm. The man must work out obsessively to have muscles like that.
I wonder what his skin feels like. Bare and smooth and hot . . .
“Violet!” Zachary strides toward me, his eyes flashing as he takes in me standing beside Ryder. “There you are. I was worried you’d fallen in.”
I grimace. Such a crass remark. I can’t believe he said that in front of Pilar and Ryder. He never talks like that. “I’m fine.” I smile and lift my chin. “I ran into Ryder on my way out and we were talking.”
The anger simmering in Zachary’s gaze is undeniable. Good.
He should know I’m not thrilled that Pilar has her hands on him either. She’s standing beside him, her dark red lips curved into a closed-mouth smile, looking awfully pleased with herself. “I didn’t realize you two were so close,” Zachary says, his voice sharp, his gaze assessing.
“Someone needs to take care of her now that you’ll be gone, don’t you think, Lawrence?” Ryder chuckles.
I immediately release my hold on Ryder’s arm, shocked at his words. The fire in Zachary’s gaze rises and I go to him, sliding my arm around his waist and giving him a squeeze. “Ignore him,” I whisper, placing my hand on Zachary’s cheek when he continues to stare at Ryder like he wants to murder him where he stands. “Please.”
Zachary breathes deep, his chest rising against mine, his expression contrite. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” He glances up, glaring at Ryder again. “See you both tomorrow?”
Pilar murmurs a goodbye, though Ryder says nothing. Zach- ary opens the door for me and I slide into the car, Zachary following in after me. Just as he pulls the door shut, I hear Ryder’s voice, clear above the usual city noise.
“See you tomorrow, Violet.”
He doesn’t bother mentioning Zachary. It’s as if he’s completely focused on me.
And that makes me fairly sure Ryder is quite possibly the last person I want to see tomorrow.
“Tell me.” I keep my gaze focused firmly on my monitor so my sister won’t suspect I’m up to anything. I’m on a research hunt and I want no one to suspect a thing. “What do you know about Ryder McKay?”
Rose laughs. “I know he’s sexy as hell.”
My head whips in her direction so fast I swear I just threw out my neck. I rub the back of it, wincing. “What do you mean? Do you have a crush on him?”
Rose laughs even harder, the little witch. “What woman that works here doesn’t? Not that he notices any of us. He’s too focused on his work. Or he’s spending time with Pilar Vasquez.” She grimaces. “There’s a relationship I don’t really understand.”
“Agreed.” I can’t get him out of my mind. I tossed and turned last night, my mind racing. Why had he been so nice to me? What had he meant by that remark he made to Zachary? And why did Pilar have her hands all over Zachary’s chest?
Such a strange night. One I can’t help but reexamine and try to take apart. But every time I try to put it back together, the pieces don’t fit.
“I’ve heard he’s very driven,” Rose says, interrupting my thoughts. “He’s determined to succeed at Fleur, which I’m sure Daddy loves.”
“He does love it. He approves of Ryder’s tactics. Father has lavished praise on him to me more than once.” Only Rose would get away with calling our father Daddy. I don’t think I’ve ever called him that. He’s Father to me. Not even Dad.
Our relationship has always been more on the formal side.
“I’m surprised he hasn’t tried to match me up with him,” Rose continues, turning her head so she’s gazing out the window. “Like he matched you up with Zachary.”
“He didn’t match us up,” I argue, offended that she would even suggest it. She knows the truth behind the start of our relationship. “I chased after Zachary.” I took one look at him and knew he would be perfect. Father encouraged our relationship, I won’t deny that, but it was no predestined match.
“Whatever you say.” Rose shrugs and turns her attention upon me. She’s the astute one. The savvy one. Nothing much gets past my baby sister. “Why are you asking about Ryder anyway?”
My mind blanks as I try my best to act like it’s nothing when it’s so something. A very big something I discovered when I went over my schedule with my assistant earlier this morning. “I’ve been working on a project and just realized I’m going to be in constant contact with him over the next few months. I want to know what I’m dealing with.” Not necessarily a lie. I’d been in a meeting earlier this morning, discussing the new line we’re creating under my name. We’ve come to the point where design needs to be involved, and Ryder is the associate director of packaging.
“Packaging?” Ah, Rose the mind reader. “I’ve heard he’s very good in whatever position he’s put in. You haven’t met with him yet?”
“I scheduled a meeting later this afternoon.” The timing of this meeting is a little odd. It almost feels . . . planned. How, I’m not sure, but everything’s falling into place quite nicely.
I don’t mention to Rose the strange encounter last night. I don’t want to. Zachary had been angry the entire ride back to my apartment, sitting silently beside me, stewing over what I haven’t a clue. He brushed a distracted kiss upon my cheek when we arrived at my building and I climbed out of the car, hurt that he didn’t even bother to tell me he loved me.
Sometimes, I can’t help but wonder if he really does. But then I tell myself my insecurities are showing and I push the worry aside. I’m good at that.
“I’ve spoken to Ryder a few times, but nothing major. He’s quite the charmer. And like I mentioned, Daddy seems enamored with him.” Rose rolls her eyes. She’s been on the outs with Father lately, and so has Lily. Our oldest sister is banned from working at Fleur. Father cast her out, tired of her sullying the family name and cheapening Fleur’s brand with her constant antics and partying.
His words, not mine.
“So if Father approves, you don’t?” I ask.
“If he’s anything like Daddy, then yes. I will automatically hate Ryder McKay. It doesn’t matter how nice he is to me.” Rose smiles, her golden eyes twinkling. She has the face of an angel, but it’s countered with that devilish glint in her gaze. With her mesmerizing eyes, round face, rosebud lips, and long, golden-brown hair with perfect blond highlights, she’s stunning. Twenty-one and confident, she holds the same position as I do at Fleur, consultant at large. It’s a lofty position, one all three of us were given since we’re the daughters of Forrest Fowler.
Rose and I have earned that position, though, what with the many hours of work we’ve put in over the years. I may have had a minor setback with my epic nervous breakdown, but once I returned, I threw myself into my work, wanting to prove myself. Needing to prove myself.
Eager to do this job, take care of this legacy that’s been so graciously handed to me.
“I should ask Grandma,” I say, grabbing my cell when it buzzes, hopeful it’s Zachary. But it’s a message from Lily, asking if I could call her later tonight. My stomach flips as I type back a yes in response.
My sister is . . . troubled. And I don’t know how to help her. None of us really do.
“Oh, I’m sure if Dahlia has met him, she will definitely have an opinion.” Rose grins and stands. She came into my office a while ago just to chat, which turned into a twenty-minute session talking about Zachary leaving. Rose doesn’t much approve of my boyfriend either.
Rose really doesn’t approve of much of anything.
“I’ll talk to her later, after the meeting.” I want to form my own opinion about Ryder’s work and abilities. I know how he affects me on a personal level and the most polite way I can phrase it is, he makes me very . . . uncomfortable.
If that translates at work, too? Then we’re in trouble.
“I’m sure he’ll come up with a brilliant idea for your packaging. Maybe you should request that he lead the project,” Rose says.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. He has to prove himself first,” I murmur, glancing at my schedule on the monitor. Just seeing that meeting listed makes my stomach jump. That I’ll have to face him again after last night worries me. I’ll need to put my bravest face on so he doesn’t see how much he unnerves me.
I can’t let him get the upper hand.
“I don’t doubt for a minute he’ll prove himself. Like I said, he’s very good at what he does,” Rose says.
Ugh. The way she says it almost sounds . . . sexual. Of course, that could be my own overly active imagination pinning sexual connotations on everything in regards to Ryder.
Very unfair of me.
“Hmm. I suppose I’ll find out.” I tap my finger against my cell screen, surprised when a new text comes over and it’s from Zachary.
We’ll meet for lunch.
Frowning, I grab my phone and quickly type. I hate how he doesn’t ask. He always just assumes I’m sitting around waiting for him.
Sorry, I have plans.
Another lie, which niggles at me. I’d rather sit at my desk, eat a sandwich, and prepare for the packaging meeting than watch Zachary eat and worry over what he thinks of me.
“I should go. I have a conference call in fifteen.” I glance up as Rose smiles down at me. “Make sure and tell me how your meeting with Ryder goes.”
“You should sit in on it with me,” I say distractedly, staring at my phone screen, nervously waiting for a response from Zachary. He doesn’t like it when I refuse him.
“If you want me to, I totally can. Just let me know when.” “Two o’clock? Does that work for you?” I ask. “Definitely.” She nods. “I’ll see you then.”
“’Bye,” I say as Rose leaves, but I don’t pay any attention. Too busy watching as Zachary types his response.
I can’t see you tonight. I have plans too.
Is this his way of getting back at me? He’s done this before when we’ve been in disagreement over something. Almost like he’s withholding his company from me. Like I’m supposed to fall apart and not know what to do without Zachary by my side.
Which isn’t too far off from the truth.
My fingers hover over the keyboard for agonizing seconds before I finally type.
Maybe another time then.
Closing my eyes, I let my phone fall to my desk with a clatter. I don’t want to play games. I don’t want to avoid Zachary, either, but something isn’t right between us. I thought I’d been very accepting of his news, but maybe he thinks I’m upset. I am, but I’d never let on. I’m a good enough actress that I can always pull through.
But maybe he saw through the cracks in my veneer. Maybe I shouldn’t have lied and said I had plans. I hate lying. Lies only lead to trouble.
His answer is immediate.
Dinner tomorrow night?
I chew on my lip, wishing I could just say yes like normal and carry on with my day. Instead I’m mulling over every little thing. Analyzing his behavior and mine, wondering why I can’t stop thinking about Ryder McKay calling me beautiful, flashing that gorgeous smile at me that made me feel weak in the knees.
Thinking of it, remembering, I still feel weak.
Pushing all thoughts of Ryder out my brain, I finally answer Zachary.
Dinner sounds perfect.